When most discerning music fans are asked to name a classic song by composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, one that perfectly embodies the team’s signature sound, they are inevitably going to choose one of Dionne Warwick’s hits from the ’60s. And why not? “Walk on By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” are among a number of excellent choices that could be made, and I would find no fault with any of them.
But the other day I heard a song on the radio that seemed to have everything anyone could ask for in a Bacharach-David song. There was the beautiful melody, the masterful arrangement, and oh that muted horn that seems to be on every Bacharach-David record. The record also featured the kind of stunning vocal performance that seemed to almost flow naturally from their songs.
“One Less Bell to Answer” wasn’t originally written for the 5th Dimension though. Bacharach and David had penned the song in 1967 for veteran jazz and pop singer Keely Smith. Not only did Smith record it, but it was an Easy Listening chart hit for Rosemary Clooney in 1968, well before the 5th Dimension ever took it on. Credit for rediscovering the song goes to legendary producer Bones Howe, who recalled the song in late 1969 and thought it would be a good choice for the upcoming 5th Dimension album, Portrait.
The recording, as you might expect for a song recorded in L.A. in 1969-1970, featured some of the core members of what became known as the Wrecking Crew. They included Hal Blaine on drums, Joe Osborne on bass, Tommy Tedesco on guitar, and Larry Knechtel playing keyboards. It seems like there’s hardly a record made in L.A. during that time period that those guys didn’t play on. The recorded was done at Wally Heider Studios in Hollywood, and was one of the first to be recorded on the then-new 16-track recorder.
Portrait was the first 5th Dimension album for Bell Records after their successful stint at Johnny Rivers’ Soul City label, and it was an auspicious debut. Featuring songs by powerful writers like Jimmy Webb, Laura Nyro, and Neil Sedaka-Howard Greenfield, in addition to the Bacharach-David song, Portrait raced up the charts, reaching #6 on the R&B chart, and #20 on the pop chart in 1971.
The album spun off three Top 30 singles. Sedaka-Greenfield’s “Puppet Man” reached #24 on the pop chart, and Nyro’s “Save the Country” was #27 on the pop chart, and #41 on the R&B chart, but by far the biggest hit from the album, and one of the biggest ever for the 5th Dimension, was “One Less Bell to Answer. The record made it all the way to #2 on the pop chart.
The lead vocal of course was provided by Marilyn McCoo, and it was a performance of haunting beauty, both mournful and somehow sexy all at once. A great singer matched with perfectly suited material is a rare and wonderful combination, and in “One Less Bell to Answer” McCoo found her perfect match.
By the time “One Less Bell to Answer” was recorded, the biggest hits for the 5th Dimension were behind them. In fact, they only had two more Top Ten hits after that, 1972’s “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All,” and the follow-up “If I Could Reach You.” Both of those hits featured the McCoo magic as well. In 1975 McCoo and her husband Billy Davis, Jr. left the group to pursue what turned out to be a successful career as a duo. The 5th Dimension soldiered on with new members, and might have had a hit with “Love Hangover” in 1976, but when their version hit the charts Motown released the Diana Ross version, which squashed it.
Today you can still see McCoo and Davis, Jr. on tour, and a version of the 5th Dimension led by original member Florence LaRue. The group’s founder, LaMonte McLemore, retired from the group in 2006, and in February of this year released a memoir about his days in the 5th Dimension, among other things. Original member Ron Townson died in 2001. The 5th Dimension were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002.